Cristiano Felicio knows something about having to fill big shoes.
He’s hoping to help the Bulls do so this season with the free agency departures of Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol, and he took a big step in that direction Sunday with 17 points, 10 rebounds and four assists and making all eight of his field goal attempts in leading the Bulls to an 83-70 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers in summer league play.
“I didn’t play a good game yesterday; today I wanted to get more aggressive,” Felicio said. “Give more energy to compete and that’s what I tried to do. I was trying to help the team get the W and I did my part.”
The 6-10, 275-pound Brazilian plays with an efficient composure uncommon among young big men. Almost as if he’s channeling John Wooden to be quick but not hurry. It’s led to productive efforts when Felicio has gotten a chance, which he should this season to backup newly acquired center Robin Lopez.
While filling a big pair of shoes always has been a difficult part of Felicio’s life growing up with four siblings and a single mother stretched to the ends to even find shoes for young Cristiano.
“It was really tough,” Felicio politely explained in much improved English after the Bulls win. “We were like in five (kids) and at the time my mom was working, had to work pretty much the whole day to make sure food was on the table, get clothes to wear.
“It was tough because I was growing up and was kind of big and to try to find shoes, the right clothes for me in Brazil, it is hard. There’s not many people with my height back home, so she always had to spend more money,” Felicio said.
Felicio said his parents divorced about a decade ago and his father died suddenly five years ago. His mother, Miria Lucia, is a third grade teacher and had to stretch to take care of the five kids, including one growing so tall and fast. It’s why Cristiano began to pursue so diligently a career in professional basketball.
Felicio is even skipping a chance to play for the national team in the Olympics back home this summer to enhance his chances with the Bulls. He admits he has been criticized at home. But he has work to do, and Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said Felicio and Bobby Portis have been the most relentless workers on the team this summer, barely missing a day in the gym.
“I’m just trying to be the best I can here and help them down there,” Felicio said.
Felicio did a nice job of that against the 76ers with astute passing, defense and back to back three-point plays late in the third quarter that broke open a 31-31 halftime game as the Bulls eased to the win.
The Bulls now are 2-0 and play next on Tuesday. Spencer Dinwiddie had 14 points off the bench and No. 1 draft pick Denzel Valentine added 13 points and six rebounds with another strong floor game and a team best plus-21 in the plus/minus. No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons had 18 points for Philadelphia and a team worst -10 in the plus/minus. Bobby Portis forced Simmons into perimeter shooting, which is not his strength, and seemed to bother Simmons, who jawed and bumped with Portis on a few occasions. Portis had eight points and nine rebounds.
The Bulls also got a visit from new acquisition Rajon Rondo, who sat on the bench during the game and worked with the players.
“Rondo was great,” said Hoiberg. “A good presence for those young guys to see. He wanted to come out here. He said that the first day he came in: ‘If I do end up coming here I do want to come out and spend time with the young guys this summer.’ I think that says a lot about Rajon.
“Supporting them, talking to them on the bench, coming over in the timeout he was talking to the guys,” said Hoiberg. “I saw him giving Cris advice after the first sub and Cris responded with a big game.”
It was Felicio in a sustained third quarter sequence with a slick pass to Jerian Grant for a layup on a baseline cut, then switching aggressively on a pick and roll to thwart a score. Felicio then executed a classic drop step move and spin going up left handed for a score and foul and then an up and under reverse that enabled the Bulls to lead 58-49 after three and ease to the win.
“He was terrific,” Hoiberg said of Felicio. “He showed really good hands, made a couple of nice passes at the elbow to get our guys layups. Rebounded the ball well, played more physical, moved his feet better. I thought Cris was great.
“The biggest thing (this season) is he knows what to expect,” said Hoiberg. “I think he’s a lot more comfortable with the language than he was a year ago. He showed what he could do at the end of last season, setting screens, rolling to the rim, opening things up for our perimeter guys; he’s been really good this summer. He and Bobby have been in every day working their tails off, in the weight room getting stronger.”
There’s been the hint of competition for the backup center spot behind Lopez, though Felicio seems to have the big edge given his size and nimble moves and hands. He’s adept catching the ball rolling to the basket as well.
It’s quite the find for the kid who seemed to come to the Bulls from nowhere last year, one of those seemingly fill-out-the-roster guys never to be seen again. But Felicio was impressive enough to be signed. He sat around last season on the end of the bench and then made a few trips to the D-league. In April when he got a chance he opened some eyes.
Overall for the season, he averaged 3.4 points and 3.3 rebounds in 10 minutes when he did play in blowouts. Then in April, he averaged 7.9 points and 5.9 rebounds in 19.4 minutes while shooting 59 percent. The last three games of the season, starting two, he averaged 12.7 points and 6.7 rebounds on 65 percent shooting. He had 16 points, five rebounds and two blocks in a win over the Cavaliers when the Bulls still had not been eliminated from the playoffs.
“The playing time…I am getting more comfortable with the ball in my hand, passing the ball, trying to score,” said Felicio. “Thankfully, things were going my way. Bring energy and try to play hard, go after every rebound.”
Felicio is more than just an energetic player. He runs the court well, but has good hands with good instincts. He passes well and confidently and can make a 15 foot shot, though he has to be pushed some to take them. He’s not physically dominant, but works at it. Ironically, he was coached by Robin Lopez at an Adidas summer tournament as he was trying to get to the U.S.
“Great guy,” he said of Lopez. “I had a chance to have him as my coach in tournament play in Chicago in 2010,” said Felicio. “Great guy and great player. It’s going to be a great experience to learn from him.”
Felicio grew up in a mid sized industrial city in southeastern Brazil, Pouso Alegre, about 225 miles from Rio de Janeiro. He played soccer like all the kids, but when he was about 13 his coach looked up at the big kid with the worn shoes and suggested basketball. The country had begun to produce players, like Leandro Barbosa, Tiago Splitter, Anderson Varejao and Nene. It didn’t take long for Felicio to get hooked.
“I felt like it was my sport,” he said.
He played for two Brazil teams between 2009 and 2012 and then hoped to play college ball in the U.S. He was committed to the U. of Oregon. But the NCAA ruled him ineligible for playing in Brazil for teams deemed professional and he returned to play in Brazil.
“It was disappointing for sure when I planned to come here to play in the college level,” said Felicio. “I was about to turn 20, to come here and go to college to get my shot to the NBA; not going to the university was disappointing. I kept my head up, working and got my shot last year.”
He wasn’t drafted in 2014 and the Bulls gave him a chance last summer.
And he’s fitting in like a comfortable shoe.